Young children construct a biological conception of death, recognizing that death terminates mental and bodily processes. Despite this recognition, many children are receptive to an alternative conception of death, which affirms that the deceased has an afterlife elsewhere. A plausible interpretation of children’s receptivity to this alternative conception is that human beings, including young children, are naturally disposed to remember and keep in mind individuals to whom they are attached even when those individuals leave and are absent for extended periods. This disposition is reflected in the pervasive tendency to talk about death as a departure rather than a terminus. It also enables the living to sustain their ties to the dead, even if, in the case of death, the departure is permanent rather than temporary. Linguistic and developmental evidence for these claims is reviewed. Possible biological origins and implications for archaeological research are also discussed.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Evolutionary thanatology: impacts of the dead on the living in humans and other animals’.